Jesus says, in Luke 12:49-53:
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
This is a challenging passage because it seems so contrary to what Jesus appears to stand for: love, peace, reconciliation, forgiveness. How do we make sense of this?
We start by testing out whether Jesus really did not come to bring peace on earth. We locate this specific passage within the broader narrative of his life and ministry. When we do that, we find that Jesus definitely did come to bring peace on earth. Here it is from Luke’s version of the Gospel:
Prophesies about his ministry
End of Song of Zechariah: “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Lk 1:79)
Angels proclaiming the birth of Christ: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Lk 2:14)
Jesus’ actual ministry
To the sinful woman who anointed his feet: ‘Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”.’ (Lk 7:50)
To the bleeding woman: ‘Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace”.’ (Lk 8:48)
To the disciples after his resurrection: ‘While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”.’ (Lk 24:36)
Jesus’ instructions to his disciples
To the 72 followers: “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you.” (Lk 10:5-6)
It is hard to read all of this from Luke’s Gospel and conclude that Jesus did not come to bring peace on earth. Then what does he mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”
I suggest that Luke 12:49-50 informs us that to accomplish his mission (to bring peace on earth), Jesus must first go through a great confrontation and that this informs us that peace-building brings him into conflict with the forces of darkness, with Satan and his minions. And the Luke 12:51-53 informs us that peace-building can bring conflict even within the family home; and thus also in churches, communities, workplaces and nations.
I provide three examples of this, from my experiences in church, the ‘secular’ workplace and the nation. In each case, standing up for the values of Christ’s kingdom values – love, dignity, respect, compassion, human development, social justice, peace, etc. – has the potential to bring about conflict and division. The values of the Kingdom of God are contrary to all the values of the kingdom of darkness and to the path of sin. Small wonder, then, that championing these values brings about conflict and division.
What I take from this passage is that there is need for us to stand up for Kingdom values. This is part of peacebuilding. But standing up for peace may well lead us towards conflict and division. Let us not be too scared by this.
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